The tension between use of local, low-cost energy sources and the health effects of breathing wood smoke played out for hours in a hearing room Wednesday, as the Environment Committee heard testimony from at least 68 people about a bill that would ban outdoor wood-burning furnaces everywhere but farms.

About 3,000 of these furnaces are in operation in Connecticut. They resemble square metal sheds and burn low-temperature fires to heat buildings or water supplies, mostly in rural areas. Unlike wood stoves used indoors, outdoor furnaces are not regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Supporters of a ban said the 2005 law setting a 200-foot minimum distance between furnaces and neighbors, and smokestack heights above nearby rooflines, is not working. They said that neighbors of some furnaces continue to complain of respiratory problems and nuisance smoke in their houses 24 hours a day.

Those against the bill cited the economic and environmental value of heating with local timber.

Despite an intensive campaign by opponents of the furnaces, the speakers who came out to say the furnaces operate without problems outnumbered those wanting a ban, and committee members seemed inclined to look for ways to regulate the problem furnaces without a full ban.

“I think it’s going to go more toward enforcement of the current rules,” Environment Committee co-chair state Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford, said after hearing four hours of testimony. He said the state has laws on its books to regulate nuisance smoke.

The case of a Newtown resident who testified about a furnace so bothered Roy that he handed his testimony and a photo to a Department of Environmental Protection staffer at the hearing. He said he didn’t even have to say, “Do something.”

The resident in question was Richard Creaturo, who testified nearly at the end of the night. He lives 137 feet away from an outdoor furnace. He’s been told the unit is grandfathered in so not covered by the 200-foot rule set in 2005. “Can you imagine being next to 20 wood stoves?” he asked, referring to a common comparison. “I have no rights. I have complained. I am tired. This smoke has caused my family many major health issues.”

“We’ve got to enforce certain regulations that are supposed to mitigate any of the problems caused by smoke,” Roy said.

State Sen. Edward Meyer, co-chair of the Environment Committee, pondered a call he’d gotten from a constituent while questioning a representative of an outdoor furnace manufacturer, Central Boiler. Meyer said the complaint was that someone was using a furnace in the summer to heat a swimming pool and asked if perhaps the units ought to be shut down in the warm months.

“Not necessarily,” said David MacDonald, an environmental relations staffer for the company.

So you would advocate running these things 12 months a year?” asked Environment Committee co-chair state Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford.

“Only those who need them,” McDonald replied.

Since the 2005 law went into effect, the DEP told the Connecticut Mirror in December, it has fielded 932 complaints and issued 80 notices of violation. Of those, 16 owners were asked to fix or stop using their units. Officials said individual furnaces often received multiple complaints. One unit in Brooklyn generated more than 100 complaints, the DEP said.

Others on Wednesday quoted slightly different figures. David Boomer, a lobbyist for the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, a trade group, testified that the state had had 736 complaints since 2005 and that 524 of those complaints had been on only 10 pieces of equipment.

The strongest voice for a total ban came from Nancy Alderman, the head of Environmental and Human Health Inc., which published a report earlier targeting the furnaces as harmful to susceptible people as far as 800 feet away from the furnaces.

EHHI has taken on such causes as the effects on children of diesel fumes from school buses and the dangers of ground-up tires in artificial turf fields.

“This is the first thing we have ever done in 14 years where the people are sick now,” as opposed to fearing sickness in the future, she said.

“Environmental and Human Health is not after wood. We’re not after indoor wood stoves. We are only after outdoor wood furnaces, which use a flawed technology,” she said.

David Brown, who wrote the report for EHH, said that one person, a Vermont resident, is known to have died from the effects of outdoor furnace emissions.

Among those in favor of banning the outdoor furnaces were town health directors. The Connecticut Association of Directors of Health cited the health problems from particulate matter and organic compounds in wood smoke. Robert Miller, a health director serving 10 eastern Connecticut towns, spoke on behalf of that group, saying that the potential health effects from wood smoke include exacerbated asthma, chronic bronchitis, heart attacks, and premature death in people with heart or lunch disease.

But state Rep. Mike Alberts, R-Woodstock, said he considered banning outdoor furnaces “to be a direct assault on the quality of life of hundreds of my rural district’s constituents. In this difficult economy, many of these famlies have no option except these furnaces to heat their homes.” Alberts said the state should establish standards for future installations.

He also said he did not trust the provision exempting farmers, saying it is “just the beginning of an effort to remove that exemption.”

Even though the bill would exempt them, farmers testified against the outdoor furnace ban too. They suggested the state could address the air problems by requiring newer units known as Phase 2 technology. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate the units now, it is considering doing so.

Wayne Budney, president of the New London County Farm Bureau, said that current regulations should suffice to control the furnaces and that the state could regulate better with fines. “I am a farmer in New London County. I do not own a wood burning furnace, but my neighbors do. I take offense when the legislature discriminates between farmers utilizing these furnaces and other lower income residents. The people that use these economical sources of home heating are not relaxing around a crackling fire roasting s’mores. These are good folks living in New England where wood is plentiful and income is scarce.”